Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In the Court of the Fiddling Governor

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters recently wrote an interesting piece about Jerry Brown 2.0.  For the uninitiated, Jerry Brown is California’s Governor, taking a second stab at the job he held between 1975 and 1983.  What I found most interesting was Walters’ account of how Brown exploits weak-kneed, obsequious journalists to get his line across, or to just plain obfuscate.

“To first-timers—especially those from elsewhere”, Walters wrote, “Brown can be rather overwhelming, and he relishes giving the full treatment to out-of-state journalists who trek to Sacramento to consult the oracle.  Brown carefully limits his exposure to Capitol journalists, who might ask pointed questions about specific issues, but makes copious time for the out-of-towners, who usually emerge from interviews completely be-dazzled and eager to write fawning articles”.

Walters cited profiles in the Financial Times and Bloomberg Businessweek.  I decided to take a look at the two articles, and found that he was spot on.  In the former article, over 3,500 words in length, I calculated that fewer than 500 words were devoted to matters of legislative or political substance, as opposed to the copious quotes of Brown philosophising about nothing in particular, or the psychoanalytic indulgences on the part of the journalist in question.  That is, the article was 87% favourable fluff, and just 13% substance.  The second article was considerably better, devoting only about 60% of its wordcount to Brown’s self-aggrandising and off-topic ramblings.

Such fawning treatment of the Governor doesn't serve anyone’s interest.  Articles based on pop psychology and devoid of serious scrutiny of the Governor’s policies do not serve the interest of the public.  Soft-ball questions in interviews with major political figures do nothing to advance faith in journalists’ integrity.  And letting off the hook the man whose mantra has always been ‘he who governs least governs best’ does not serve to kick Brown’s political agenda into a higher gear.

But let’s be charitable, and see what we can learn from the thin layer of substance which isn’t entirely obscured by the smarmy gloss.

Interviewed by the Financial Times’ Matthew Garrahan, Brown noted proudly, “They don’t call me Moonbeam any more...We cut pensions, the equivalent of social security, we cut healthcare, childcare...we had a tax [ballot] and everyone said, that’s not going to pass—and it passes!  We’re getting things done.  We’re building the foundation for a renewed California”.  In the Bloomberg interview with Joel Stein, Brown waxed similarly lyrical: “We cut child care—I’m sorry to say—old age pensions, the disabled, the elderly, and the blind”. 

I shudder to think of what this renewed California is going to look like if it is constructed on the edifice of Brown’s austerity drive.  If cutting pensions, healthcare, childcare, university funding, school funding, parks funding, libraries, environmental protection, are in his mind necessary and virtuous endeavours which lay the foundations for a new society, we are in deep trouble.

Stein’s article pays precious little attention to the long-term social and economic effects of Brown’s punishing round of cuts (only a few of which will be rolled back by the much-heralded but little-analysed Prop 30), which came on the back of years of steady if less dramatic disinvestment from the public sphere. 

What the article does do is perpetuate the idea that, as the title suggests, “Brown Scared California Straight”. 

Stein fallaciously suggests that California, “the Greece of America” is somehow driven by conflicting psychological tendencies: it is “the liberal state that wants to spend on everything and the libertarian state that won’t pay for anything”.  This psychoanalytic framework is as ill-suited to explaining California as it is to understanding the meat and potatoes of Brown’s policies.  The ability for a state to (mal)function along such seemingly-contradictory lines is not so much a product of the voters’ psychosis as of a broken political structure, the same structure which generated our economic and democratic deficits.

Brown might have used a devastating austerity drive to persuade voters to endorse modest revenue increases which do not begin to offset the damage he did to the state’s social fabric in the meantime.  But he did exactly nothing to address the structural problems that have accumulated over generations as the state’s demographic and political makeup changed.  The contradictions do not, therefore, result from current ideological inconsistencies, but rather from an inherently undemocratic political structure which means that now-dead voters who helped to pass legislation in the ‘70s and earlier (the infamous Prop 13 is a good example of this) have as much if not more power in twenty-first century California as do voters of today.

Many commentators see something in Brown’s personal austerity to celebrate.  But they confuse the ability to make sacrifices from a position of ultimately unassailable privilege and power with sacrifice forced upon those with neither power nor wealth.  In this blinkered line, Stein wrote, “This is a man who remembers World War II ration cards with fondness.  ‘This idea you can have ice cream every night?  Ice cream was for your birthday’”.  Brown’s ramblings display the extent to which he is out of touch.  When we discuss the austerity driven by years of accumulated budget cuts, we’re not talking ice cream.  We’re talking healthcare, welfare, education, the ability to pay for a roof over your head and to live a decent life. 

Ultimately, beneath all the philosophising, Brown is a bit of a whiner.  “When you take polls”, he complained, “the only people you can tax are the very wealthy”.  Brown seems willing to accept the narrative that only personal wealth is up for grabs, and that oil taxes, property taxes, corporate taxes and the like are all out of bounds. 

 “The storyline is written by history, not your own ‘I want’”, Brown declared to Stein, basically declaiming responsibility for anything that happens under his watch.  The Governor should know better than that.  There is no such person as History.  The selfish desires of the Republican Party and their corporate handlers have been allowed to write the story of our state for the last forty or more years.  They were exceptionally adept at selling self-interest, anti-communitarianism, profiteering, and exploitation as virtues.  That narrative is beginning to wear thin, but it will not be “History” that kills off their morally-bankrupt worldview. 

That task will be up to actual people, who will be influenced not only by their material conditions, but by the stories that people like Jerry Brown tell about California and our society.  And for all of our sakes, I hope that his story is not one which valourises punishing austerity, abdicates responsibility, and preaches powerless fatalism while ignoring the structural deficiencies of our polity.  

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